Giant leap for 'political literacy'

7th May 2010 at 01:00
Message of Springburn Academy's mock election - if you don't vote, you don't count - puts pupils right in the parliamentary picture

Springburn Academy, in the heart of Glasgow North East, the constituency held until last year by the former Speaker, Michael Martin, has been gripped by election fever.

It is a constituency where voter turnout has traditionally been low (when Willie Bain took the seat for Labour in last year's by-election, only 32.9 per cent cast their vote). In addition and by convention, the Speaker usually stands unopposed.

Because of this background, the message to pupils from Jayne Ashley, head of social subjects at the school, has been: "If you don't vote, you don't count."

In a bid to equip pupils with what she describes as "political literacy" skills, she has mounted an ambitious mock election programme for S1-3 pupils (S4-6 classes are on study leave for their SQA exams).

"The kind of voting they might have understood before was voting for participants in the X Factor and I'm a Celebrity shows. But unlike these shows, elections are not a popularity contest. When you vote in real life, it does make a difference and it's far more serious," said Ms Ashley.

She has led and organised a series of events, including whole-school assemblies, delivered by Springburn's senior management team to highlight why it is important to vote. Lessons on voting were designed by the modern studies department but delivered by all teachers of personal and social education.

One PSE teacher, who hadn't planned to vote, has changed her mind, saying she couldn't teach a lesson on voting without heeding the message herself.

The three S3 modern studies classes have fielded candidates representing six of the parties standing in Glasgow North East. The BNP, which is also standing in the constituency, is not being represented in the school hustings because of fears of jeopardising the good relationship between the many pupils from asylum-seeking backgrounds and those brought up in the local area.

S3 modern studies pupils have researched the political parties' policies on constitutional reform, civil liberties and the economy, with each one taking on different roles - election agent, speech-writer, IT co- ordinator, advertising team member and spin doctor.

There have been speeches and question-and-answer sessions at hustings for each year group. Ms Ashley is particularly proud of one candidate, a boy from the Congo who has a bad stammer but is still prepared to speak in front of hundreds of pupils, because people in his homeland are denied their democratic rights.

Pupils cast their votes on May 5, the day before the election, using official polling booths.

The maths department organised the "count". It will use the figures to teach about percentages and composite bar graphs as well as working out the turnout for each year group and the school, before comparing that with the constituency and national results.

And one of the school technicians has videoed teachers, pupils and office staff responding to three questions: why is it important to vote?; what issues do they care about?; and what would they change in Britain and the world if they had the power?

Pupils' responses have, generally, been more considered than their teachers' - hot on the heels of learning about the politics of aid for Standard grade modern studies, they aspire to universal access to clean water, abolition of child poverty and a cure for Aids. By contrast, one teacher wanted to create a worldwide "pink" day.

Modern problem

For modern studies teachers, the election is the ideal vehicle to show the "importance of modern studies as a subject that exists in the real world", said Jayne Ashley, head of social subjects at Springburn Academy and a committee member of the Modern Studies Association.

Uptake in the subject has always been patchy - its prominence often depends on heads' and local authority commitment. In Glasgow, no secondaries offered it at Advanced Higher last year, but the number of presentations nationally was up on the previous year.

Some teachers are concerned that the subject faces a new threat: the combination of Curriculum for Excellence and budget cuts may lead to "common courses" or "one-teacher delivery" of social subjects, they fear.

Ms Ashley argues that to bind modern studies, history and geography together artificially will lead to the dilution of all three. "I'm not sure that kids would get the depth of learning on a common course that they would get from discrete subjects," she said.

Liz McGlashan, president of the Scottish Association of Geography Teachers, said: "There are a number of schools throughout Scotland where geographers have had to fight integration into a social subjects plan. Some have had to go down that route, dragged kicking and screaming; others have had rotas, which means that the last subject the pupils had at the end of S2 is the one freshest in their minds and therefore becomes their choice."

Tom Monaghan, president of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History, believes it will take a few years for any evidence of a national trend to emerge, but points out that the Royal Society of Edinburgh has set up a working group to investigate how much history teaching is being done in schools and to look at whether Curriculum for Excellence is a threat to it.

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